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Forget Heidegger

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   1 orget Heidegger   Introduction  Imagine yourself in what is perhaps an all too familiar scenario  . You walk into a hotel room, a slightly grotty hotel room perhaps. The walls may be somewhat dirty; paint, perhaps, is pealing from the furniture; and there may be a musty smell. Initially you feel a sense of alienation. The room is unfamiliar. You don’t feel at home in it. Nevertheless you unpack your bags. You put your washbag in the wash room and hang your clothes in the wardrobe. Gradually, as you lay out these familiar objects, the room seems less alienating. But what is most curious is that after a night or two spent sleeping in the room, what once seemed alienating and unfamiliar gradually becomes familiar, to the point that you begin to feel at home in the room. Maybe you even become slightly fond of it, with its shabby furniture and musty smells. You start to feel cosy there, and almost do not want to leave. Somehow — almost imperceptibly — a shift has happened. What once appeared grim and alienating, now appears familiar and homely. This is a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar, and yet somehow no one, to my mind, has yet attempted to analyse it fully. It applies equally to questions of design. What once seemed ugly may eventually appear less objectionable after a period of time. And it applies also to questions of technology. Take the example of satellite dishes. At first sight they may appear unfamiliar and out of place, but before long they have been accepted as part of the familiar language of the street. And the same principle, no doubt, applied to traffic lights before them. Even the most seemingly alienating of technological forms can soon become absorbed within our symbolic horizons, such that they no longer appear so alienating. Of course the situation is often not that simple. Other factors may come into play. There may be some further consideration — an unpleasant association, for example — that prevents you from ever feeling at home in a particular environment. Yet such factors appear merely to mitigate   against what seems to be an underlying drive to ‘grow into’, to become familiar and eventually identify with our environment. It is as though there is a constant chameleon-like urge to assimilate that governs human nature. What, then, is going on here? What exactly is   this process of ‘growing into’, becoming fond of, familiarising oneself with our environment? How does this mechanism operate? And more especially, within the context of this particular enquiry, how might this   2 phenomenon prompt us to rethink the question of technology? How might, for example, the overtly negative stand taken by certain theorists on the supposedly alienating effect of technology be revisited in the light of these observations? Can technology be viewed more positively? All these questions are addressed to an architectural culture still dominated in certain areas by a broadly Heideggerian outlook, and which remains largely critical of technology. Heidegger and the Question oncerning Technology  What, then, was Heidegger's attitude towards technology? Technology is a crucial concern throughout his work, but the issue is addressed most explicitly in his essay, 'The Question Concerning Technology'. 1  Heidegger was not opposed to technology as such. But rather he saw in technology a mode of 'revealing', and it was here that the danger lay. 'The essence of modern technology,' as he puts it, 'lies in enframing. Enframing belongs within the destining of revealing.' 2  The problem lies, for Heidegger, in precisely this 'destining' of this revealing, in that it 'banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering.' 3  And this form of 'revealing' is an impoverished one as it denies the possibility of a deeper ontological engagement: 'Above all, enframing conceals that revealing which, in the sense of poiesis  , lets what presences come forth into appearance.' 4  Rather than opening up to the human it therefore constitutes a form of resistance or challenge to the human, in that it 'blocks' our access to truth: 'Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth.' 5  What we find in our contemporary age, according to Heidegger, is a condition in which humankind treats nature as a form of resource, something to be exploited, stockpiled and so on. ‘Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call is the standing-reserve [ Bestand  ].’ 6  And it is this sense of ‘standing-reserve’, rather than poiesis  , that lies at the heart of modern technology: ‘The essence of modern technology shows itself in what we call Enframing. . . It is the way in which the real reveals itself as standing-reserve.’ 7  The 1 Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings  , David Farrell Krell (ed.), New York: Harper Collins, 1993, pp. 311-341. 2 Ibid. , p. 330. 3 Ibid. , p. 332. 4 Ibid. , p. 332. 5 Ibid. , p. 333. 6 Ibid. , p. 322. 7 Ibid. , pp. 328-329.   3 problem is not so much of nature being devalued as standing-reserve, but humankind finding itself in the same condition: ‘As soon as what is concealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.’ 8  Technology therefore comes to be associated with a form of alienation. It prevents humankind from being in touch with a richer form of revealing which operates within a more poetic dimension. But it is important to stress that the danger lies not in technology, but its essence: 'What is dangerous is not technology. Technology is not demonic; but its essence is mysterious. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger.' 9  Needless to say, Heidegger's comments on 'truth' are as deeply unfashionable in contemporary theoretical circles as is his belief in 'essences'. And even attempts by more recent thinkers in this intellectual tradition, such as Gianni Vattimo, to update Heidegger's thought for a postmodern world of 'difference' and 'differals' of meaning, can do little to redeem such a position. The question will always remain: 'Whose truth?' And this refers to all forms of human engagement. As Félix Guattari comments on the subject of technology: 'Far from apprehending a univocal truth of Being through techné  , as Heideggerian ontology would have it, it is a plurality of beings as machines that give themselves to us once we acquire the pathic or cartographic means of access to them.' 10  Heidegger's approach always threatens to reduce human beings to a single, universal individual, and to collapse the subject into the object, so that the agency of the interpreter is somehow overlooked, and 'meaning' is deemed to be unproblematically 'given'. Yet we might more properly approach such questions from an individual perspective, and treat meaning not as some universal 'given', but in symbolic terms as that which may vary from individual to individual. Symbolic meaning — like beauty — lies in the eye of the beholder, but is no less real for that. And symbolic meaning, as Fredric Jameson reminds us, is 'as volatile as the arbitrariness of the sign'. 11  An object might mean one thing to one person, and quite the opposite to another. This is not to sanction 8 Ibid. , p. 332, as quoted in Scheibler, 'Heidegger and the Rhetoric of Submission' in Verena Andermatt Conley (ed.), Rethinking Technologies  , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 116. 9 Ibid. , p. 333. 10 Félix Guattari, 'Machinic Heterogenesis' in Rethinking Technologies  , p. 26. 11 Fredric Jameson, 'Is Space Political?' in Neil Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture  , London: Routledge, 1997, p. 258.   4 relativism, so much as to highlight the need to acknowledge the agency of the interpreter and the perspective from which an interpretation is made. As such we might do better to retreat from such abstract universals and address the specificity of the concrete situation. What such thinking fails to interrogate is how our understanding of the world is always mediated. It fails to address questions of consciousness. What is important, surely, when we address objects in the world is to consider not only the objects themselves but also the consciousness by which we know those objects. The phenomenological tradition does not perceive this as an area of concern. It therefore fails to grasp the very fluid and dynamic way our engagement with the world takes place. And this includes technology. Just as humans invest and subsequently transfer notions of 'home' by cathecting it from one dwelling to another, so they take a more dynamic and flexible attitude to technology. They may come to invest it with meaning, and to forge an attachment to it, that serves ultimately to overcome any initial resistance to it. As such they may reappropriate it from the realm of standing-reserve. In sum, what needs to be brought into the frame is the notion of 'appropriation'. Heidegger, to be sure, has been criticised elsewhere for overlooking the question of 'appropriation'. As Derrida argues convincingly, the whole principle of hermeneutics is based on a form of undisclosed appropriation — 'claiming' — where the agency of the interpreter in making that interpretation is not fully acknowleged. 12  But by 'appropriation' I refer here to the process of 'familiarisation' over time. Just as one can question whether the 'authenticity' or indeed 'inauthenticity' (in Heideggerian terms) of an artefact will endure once memory of its creation is lost, so technology can never be seen to be the enduring site of alienation. Technology is always open to poetic appropriation. The somewhat monolithic attitude of Heidegger towards technology needs to be challenged. Those who argue that technology is the perpetual source of alienation clearly overlook the potential for human beings to absorb the novel and the unusual within their symbolic framework. We need to adopt a more flexible, dynamic framework, that is alert to the very chameleon-like capacity for psychical adaptation that is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. It may, of course, be that we can locate an opening in Heidegger's thought, and argue, as does Ingrid Scheibler, that Heidegger also allows for what he terms, 'meditative thinking', and that this can be deployed in the realm of technology so as to forge a less deterministic relationship between human beings and 12 Jacques Derrida, Truth in Painting  , Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 255-382.
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